Illusion and Disillusionment in the Works of Jeff Wall and Gerhard Richter: Picturing (Post)Modern Life
Mansbach, Steven A.
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This study is a meta-critique of the discourse surrounding the emergence of large-scale, color photography around 1980 and the concurrent "return to painting" through an examination of the art praxes of Jeff Wall and Gerhard Richter. As Western avant-garde art shifted from conceptual practices toward large-scale, figurative painting and photography during the late 1970s and early 1980s there developed a vociferous discourse that, to a large degree, was highly critical of the changes that were taking place. The most strident aspect of the discourse emanated from fundamentally Marxist critics and academicians who viewed the turn to more aesthetically-based art forms as an undesirable capitulation to the political hegemony of the conservative administration in the United States, and to a burgeoning and increasingly international art market fueled by improving economic conditions. This criticism looked less than carefully at the art and the stated positions of the artists. This study mines the critical writings about both Wall and Richter in order to illuminate the discourse and elucidate the limits of art-historical writing that arises from rigid theoretical positions. It focuses particularly on the writings of Benjamin Buchloh, Douglas Crimp, Rosalind Krauss and Jean-Francois Chevrier. The writings of Wall and Richter are also given considerable weight and their voices are invoked as full participants. The works of Wall and Richter involve inextricable combinations of photography and painting in very different ways, and the role of medium within the discourse is examined. In addition, the artists' references in their works to art forms of earlier periods in the history of Modernism are also considered. Although this study focuses on the period 1976 to 1990, it pays considerable attention to connections between early twentieth century German and Russian theories of montage and the art of Jeff Wall, and Wall's illuminated transparencies are emphasized. The geographic scope of the study includes North America and West Germany, where much of the controversy about the "return to painting" was generated, and where exhibitions of the work of both Wall and Richter occurred frequently during the study period.